VANCOUVER -- Jimmy Pattison sold his first used car, a 1939 Dodge almost 70 years ago, but the billionaire entrepreneur’s vision of the auto-sales business is not clouded by nostalgia.
Pattison believes radical change is inevitable as personal transportation shifts toward online transactions, lower-maintenance electric vehicles, car sharing and driverless automation.
Dealerships will have fewer staff in the future, he said, and smaller physical footprints, perhaps with several brands under one roof like a high-end department store housing individual boutiques.
“We just built a new Toyota dealership in Victoria,” Pattison said in an exclusive interview with Automotive News Canada. “The showroom holds 26 cars, 26 new cars. I don’t think in the coming years that it’ll work that way.”
Pattison certainly has fond memories of the car business from when he bought his first dealership, a Pontiac-Buick store in 1961. One wall of his airy 18th-floor office overlooking Vancouver’s Coal Harbour features shelves of photo albums chronicling lavish sales promotions, staff parties and happy customers.
But he is also clear-eyed about those days. “The used-car salesman with a straw hat on, smoking a cigar, was real.”
From sales ethics to customer satisfaction, Pattison believes much has improved from the time car dealerships lined Vancouver’s Georgia Street, now studded with glass towers.
CREDITS JAPAN’S QUALITY
“The quality of the sales people are much better than they used to be,” he said. “The Japanese are the ones that changed that. They taught people like me really what customer satisfaction was all about. I went to Japan and, boy, I came back a different person.”
Pattison Auto Group has 25 dealerships in Western Canada across 12 brands that sold 21,400 vehicles last year.
It’s one unit of the Pattison Group’s highly diversified holdings, which includes broadcasting, entertainment, food, real estate, advertising, forest products and packaging.
At 88, Pattison remains CEO of the second-largest private company in Canada with annual revenue last year of $9.6 billion. He drives himself daily across the Lions Gate Bridge from his West Vancouver home, currently in a Chrysler Pacifica. On sunny summer days he might take his 1975 Pontiac convertible.
Ironically, the birth of Pattison’s business empire stemmed partly from GM’s unwillingness to grant him another franchise after launching his first Vancouver dealership.
“I was making money,” he said. “I don’t golf and I was looking for something to do so I went into radio, as I was a big advertiser in Vancouver.”
Pattison cut his teeth selling used cars to help pay his way through university. He dropped out when a chance came to buy his own lot. Local Nash dealer Dan McLean got it eventually, but hired Pattison as manager, then took Pattison with him when he acquired a Cadillac-Buick dealership.